Cheapening the Worth of First Class Degrees

Covenant University students during convocation

Most first class degrees awarded by private universities in Nigeria suffer credibility question as some of their holders cannot justify the degrees they hold

By Vincent Nzemeke  |  Jul. 21, 2014 @ 01:00 GMT

COVENANT University, one of the most popular private universities in Nigeria, was the butt of internet jokes about two months ago when it held its 9th convocation ceremony.  The event which was supposed to be a day of joy for the graduands and management of the institution was soured by the suggestions from some quarters that the university was awarding first class degrees cheaply to students.

At the event, David Oyedepo, Chancellor of the University announced that some 82 students had bagged first class degree during the 2013/2014 session. In addition to the 82 students that bagged first class honours, 594 bagged second class upper division honours, 531 bagged second class lower division honours while 127 bagged third class honours.

Days after the event, the internet was abuzz with jokes, articles and debates about the university’s 82 first class graduates. Although opinions were divided, many commentators on Facebook, Twitter, blogs and other social media platforms, seemed surprise that a university in Nigeria could have 82 first class graduates in one convocation ceremony.

Although, this year’s award generated a lot of attention, it is not the first time Covenant University would be in the news for awarding first class degrees to many students. During its 2013 convocation ceremony, the university had 114 first class graduands out of the 1,466 students who graduated in that session.  During the 2011/2012 academic session, the university produced 95 first class graduates giving a false impression that it is a centre of academic excellence.

Unilag students during the 2014 convocation
Unilag students during the 2014 convocation

Some other private universities seem to have copied the Covenant University example. For instance, Babcock University, Ilisan-Remo, Ogun State, produced 52 first class graduates in the 2013/2014 academic session. When Bells University of Technology, Ota, awarded 14 first class degrees during its first convocation in 2013,  not a few eyebrows were raised. The first class mentality which appears to have become a trend in Nigerian private universities has raised a big credibility question on  the degrees and the institutions awarding them.

 When compared to what is happening in government-owned higher institutions, it appears that the private universities are giving out first class degrees to whoever cares to have one. For instance, at the University of Lagos which held its convocation recently, only 89 out of the 9,729 graduating students for the 2013/2014 academic session made the first class list.

It is the same thing at the Delta State University, Abraka, where only four  out of the 10,215 graduating students bagged first class degrees at the recently concluded 8th convocation ceremony of the institution. Of the four first class graduates, three were from the 2011/2012 academic session, while only one first class emerged in the 2012/2013 academic session.

The controversy over the quality of first class degrees awarded by private universities is deepening mainly because, long before the arrival of private universities in 1999, public universities were very conservative and only the very best of their students were awarded first class degrees. For instance, the department of mass communication, University of Lagos, has been very conservative in giving out first class awards to its graduates. In the more than 46 years of its existence, the department  has not produced up to 10 first class graduates but some of its products who pursue higher degrees in foreign universities have won laurels for their academic performance. But some private universities have churned out many first class graduates in the same course in less than ten years of their operation. This has prompted many concerned Nigerians to accuse private universities of cheapening   the worth of first class degrees awarded by them.

In an interview with a newspaper early this year, Prof. Adebiyi Daramola, vice-chancellor, federal university of technology, Akure, Ondo State, is one of those who have expressed concern over indiscriminate award of first class degrees to graduating students by private universities in the country. Daramola described the action as a marketing strategy adopted by private university operators to woo wealthy individuals who are looking for institutions that would make their children first class graduates.

The professor also cautioned managements of private universities against commercialisation of first class degrees. He said first class degrees should be awarded to only exceptionally brilliant students who would utilise their skills to contribute meaningfully to the development of the country.


Daramola said he always feels sad when private institutions with lesser number of graduating students produce higher number of first class grades while public universities with higher number of students award few first class grades to deserving students who had exhibited excellence in their studies.

“Many employers of labour would not touch these graduates with a long pole because academic standards have been compromised by the authorities of these universities for mere pottage. Second class holders in public universities perform better than the so-called first class degrees obtained in private universities.

“Many private universities are marketing their schools and are capitalising on gullible parents. All they are doing is to attract parents to send their children to their universities by making them believe that their children can come out with first class degrees.

“There was a friend of mine who was working with an insurance company in Lagos. The criterion for employment in that company is that an applicant must have a  first class degree.  None of the  first class products of  private universities who applied for the job passed the aptitude test whereas holders of second class honours from federal universities did.”

Daramola alleged that because private universities are set up as profit making ventures, awarding first class degrees to the graduates is the only way to keep customers coming.  “Private universities are set up to make profit. The proprietors must make profit. A man who has gone to the bank to borrow money to set up a university, what are you going to tell him that he will listen to?

“In the Committee of Vice-Chancellors, we have different orientations. Although most of the VCs of the private universities are from conventional universities, their employers dictate what happens. We have serious governance problem in private universities.”

Some other people have also suggested that the high school fees charged by the private universities could also be another reason why they produce so many first class graduates. The proponents of that view argue that parents who part with huge amounts as school fees for their children in private schools, expect nothing less than a first class degree in return.

Wilson Olise, a lecturer at Delta State University, Abraka, agrees. He said: “When parents are lured to pay huge sums with the promise that their children would receive the best of university education, they would expect nothing other than excellence which in this case is a first class degree or a minimum of second class upper division.”

But stakeholders in some private institutions have defended their actions saying that students who bag first class honours degrees from their institutions really  deserve them. Prof Ayo Fajana, the vice chancellor, Joseph Ayo Babalola University, JABU, Osun State, is one of them. He said at an event in Abuja recently that contrary to the perception that first class degrees are for sale in private universities, the students actually work hard for them.

Fajana said there was no need to question the number of first class students graduating from private universities as their performances were often verified by external examiners. He also attributed the rising number of students graduating with first class degrees from private universities to the quality of teaching and the conducive learning environment.

David Oyedepo, covenant University Chancellor
David Oyedepo, covenant University Chancellor

Citing JABU as a case in point, the VC said out of the 27 courses offered by the institution, 24 had been fully accredited by the National Universities Commission, NUC, while four got interim accreditation. He said though the university was small, it had quality teachers who were in a position to meet the needs of the students.

“Private universities, by design, are small in size; the objective is to ensure that you have a small number of students in the class but you still have the full complement of lecturers. So the teacher-student ratio is very low: in our university, for example, we have a teacher-student ratio of one to seven and that gives the opportunity for the teacher to look at the specific needs of the students. For you to be able to actually resolve the issues that each student presents, you need plenty of time, you need plenty of energy and intellectual resource to do that and that is the advantage of the private universities.

“And so I do not see any reason why anybody should frown at the number of first class that we make because the examination process is solid. The external examination process, which is the requirement of the National Universities Commission, is also there for everybody to see. So if professors from other universities have come to examine your own students and found them worthy of your first class, you cannot deny these students the first class. What we need to do is to look at the quality of the first class students, wherever they have been; you find out that they have always remained excellent; they have always remained spectacular in what they do.”

Opinions are also divided in the job market about the quality of graduates coming from privately- owned institutions. While some of them have been able to justify the first class degrees awarded to them, there are many others who have fallen short of expectation.

According to a recent data released by the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC, many of the first class graduates who participated in its recruitment interview last year scored less than 20 per cent in the aptitude test conducted for them. The Nigerian Police Force, NPF, also disclosed last year that some first class graduates who sat for its recruitment tests did not pass.

Ebiware Ongeyi, a human resource manager at a private company in Abuja, said she has had experiences with first class graduates from public and private institutions. According to her, some of the graduates have not lived up to expectation. “I have met quite a few and I am amazed at how they made the first class in the first place. Either from private or public school, they are all deficient or unable to defend the degree they hold,” she said.

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